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International Research Emerges in Force at dg.o2003
Digital government researchers reach across borders to offer technology, expertise and insight
DGRC Staff

DG Program Manager Valerie Gregg with Hungarian researcher Z. Karvalics Laszlo

As Hungary's nascent computer environment began to unfold, the country stumbled across a simple yet profound problem: Struggling up from poverty, the Eastern European nation couldn't afford to replace old and marred computer disks with new.

So a local company called Kurt began repairing broken disks - a business no other country had thought, or been pressed, to do. Now, that repair firm has morphed into a lucrative data recovery and data value assessment concern that is being closely watched around the world, Hungarian e-government researcher Z. Karvalics Laszlo said.

Welcome to the world of International e-government, where underdevelopment is a catalyst for innovation, and IT solutions know no national bounds.

International e-government was the big buzz at dg.o2003. Throughout the three-day meeting, speakers told of biometric cards to pay traffic tickets in the European Union, a dynamite Pilgrimage to Mecca site in Saudi Arabia, and an unofficial site to criticize Turkish national I.D. numbers as "Big Brother".

Canada and Singapore are ahead of the U.S. in e-government development, and Qatar is not far behind. Several tiny island nations have used wireless technology to leapfrog past wired networks in more developed countries, and 20 percent of Finnish households have abandoned their land lines for an all-wireless lifestyle.

In a panel session on international e-government, conference co-chair Yigal Arens provoked debate by asking whether international e-government could be considered a subject in its own right, or merely IT across national boundaries.

Speakers noted that half the legislation in the European Union now originates in Brussels, not the national capitals. And the growing influence of NAFTA, multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations portend more globalization to come.

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"Some kind of network phenomenon is happening that is not limited to the role of international comparisons," said Noshir Contractor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who co-moderated the international e-government panel

Still mulling the question the next day, the other moderator, Anthony Stefanidis joked at a luncheon meeting that International e-government is "bureaucracy without borders." More seriously, he said that international DG could identify and solve transnational problems, hopefully by sharing national resources. "It is not trivial to find out that the source of a problem is beyond your borders," Stefanidis said.

Sometimes the problems burst from the international e-government research itself. José Fortes described his multilateral drug control project as "herding cats."

Fortes, of the University of Florida's Advanced Computing and Information Systems Laboratory, is working to help agents at the Bélize-Dominican Republic border exchange data, and jointly police a "watch list" of suspicious travelers.

With five languages, including the official English and Creole, in Bélize, and with Dominican Republic's 9 million people speaking only Spanish, machine translation and spoken dialogue systems become problematic.

Cultural differences can be just as tough. One country, hearing that funding was 99.0001% assured, was reluctant to begin participating without complete funding, for fear of offending the U.S. by jumping the gun, Fortes said.

And the Internet is not created equal across national bounds.

"In one country Internet access is sporadic and expensive," Fortes said. "In the other, hotels have better access than the government.

"There must be a multitude of IT solutions instead of a single one," he said.